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Last Updated: Thursday, 28 September 2006, 10:39 GMT 11:39 UK
Europe diary: Romanian emigration
28 September 2006

BBC Europe editor Mark Mardell discusses the motives Romanians may have for seeking work abroad, and the UK's plans to stop some of them coming - and he asks what mass emigration does to a country.

The diary is published every Thursday.


We are deep in the Romanian countryside, on a dirt track off the main road. Three heavily laden horse-drawn wagons of a type familiar from westerns come to a dusty halt. The Roma on board are eager to tell their story. Constantina Ion is almost pleading with us: "For the sake of Jesus Christ, tell people how much poverty there is here! The police keep taking our horses and caravans away."

Constantin Ion
Constantin does not want to beg
She says they are scrap metal dealers by trade but there is no more scrap metal to be had.

Her husband, confusingly named Constantin Ion, would be a dream for an overwrought tabloid. But he's pretty good for us as well. His teeth flash gold as he tells his story with wide expansive gestures, his grubby white shirt open, exposing a cascade of black chest hair. He pauses only to pick another black seed from the sunflower head the size of a dinner plate and spit in the dirt.

He says that they all have passports and have in the past travelled to Germany to find work "on the black", but were chased back by the police. He says they would love to go to Britain, and the British government would be wrong to impose restrictions on Romanians who want to come. He says: "We don't want to beg on street corners. I want to work hard, with a shovel. I am an honest worker."


Wittingly or not, he strikes the nail on the head. At the beginning of next year Constantin and his family, as well as Romania's IT specialists and bankers, will be able to come to Britain without a visa. That's because Romania and Bulgaria will join the European Union on New Years' day, 2007. The question before the British Government is whether they will be allowed to legally work.

Pie chart of top 10 migrant jobs

Although Britain was one of only three countries to allow unrestricted access to people in from the eight former communist countries which joined in 2004, Romanians and Bulgarians almost certainly won't get the same treatment. Ministers were rather proud that while the French trembled at the thought of their precious 35-hour-week and high wages being undercut, Britain was showing the way to a true free market.

But they were undermined by their tremendous underestimate of how many Eastern European workers would want to come to Britain. And sneering at the French is one thing, failing to tremble before the might of tabloid fury is quite another. It's always interesting when the demands of big business and the demands of nationalism clash, and that's what's happening now. While the majority of reports say the migration was beneficial to the economy, there are serious worries about the strain on the school and health systems.


It's little wonder people want to come, whether they are welcomed grudgingly or not at all.

I am really surprised by Ferentari, a part of Bucharest five miles from the centre. I expected the dirty and run-down communist-era flats. I expected the rather creaking trams heading out from the city centre. But the trams run past side streets which are dusty and unpaved, littered with single-storey block-like concrete buildings.

Ferentari is reminiscent of Africa, not Europe
They're brightly painted, with wires hanging at odd angles and roofs that don't quite fit. It reminds me of Africa, not Europe. Romania's problem is not high unemployment, or a poor economy, or a lack of skills. In fact in many ways it's doing pretty well. But it is grindingly poor. People can simply earn much more in just about any other part of Europe. Italy and Spain, once themselves the source of cheap labour, are the favourite destinations.


At a building site in central Bucharest, a gang of men is busy turning a dilapidated building into a hotel. Many of them have worked abroad in the past and say they would give Britain a go: they expect the money to be even better in the United Kingdom. Most reckon they could get 10 times what they earn here.

It's a figure I hear many times and there's no reason to suggest it's not accurate. Stefan Gabriel, who speaks excellent English, says he'll come if he can get a contract and is allowed to work. But he admits that many people might visit as tourists and just stay, fading into the grey and black economy.

This is the government's dilemma. While work permits may satisfy their critics and discourage some Romanians and Bulgarians from coming, it is hard to see how they can be stopped from entering legally and working illegally.


But a poor image of Romanians has been presented in much of the British press and it's this, rather than the government's stance, that really irks people here.

Of course there were Romanians who have left the country in the last 15 years but their destinations were linked to our cultural background - that means they prefer to go either to Italy or in Spain because we are a Latin country
Prime Minister Calin Popescu-Tariceanu
Prime Minister Calin Popescu-Tariceanu is at pains to point out to me that Romanians are highly educated, highly skilled and most won't want to come to Britain anyway. In Spain, they have earned praise for their contributions to the economy and local life. There is already large-scale movement of people to Italy and Spain, where the language is similar, and so easier to learn.

The capital Bucharest is a city of two million people. One estimate suggests three million people have gone from this country to work abroad.


The benefits and pitfalls are obvious in Peretu, in the countryside. Florea Opera tells me that he has sold his 100 sheep and taken out a loan so his grown-up son and daughter can travel to Spain and work - the boy in construction, the girl in restaurants.

House under construction
A new house: Florea's Spanish gamble pays off
He shows me around his dream home, which he's building with the money his kids have sent back. We are watched by two old dears from next door who keep one eye on our tour of the half-built house, the other on a plastic bucket full of red peppers they are trimming.

Flora and his wife Aurica open a bottle of sparkling wine and we drink it out of half-pint mugs to celebrate. There are tears in his eyes as he remembers the hardships he went through to pay off the loan, but pride as he shows me snaps of the house his dream home is modelled on - a Spanish-style hacienda with big black wrought iron gates and swooping balconies.

There is, I am quick to check, a big kitchen. At the moment, Aurica does the washing up in a bowl on a rickety table in the yard, next to the dark stable attached to their current house with its complement of three horses, five pigs and a cow. But there are no young people around, only the middle-aged and elderly. One old lady carrying a massive cabbage for their chickens stops to says: "Look around... there's nobody, they've all gone."


Whether or not free migration would harm Britain, it will possibly have a negative effect on Romania. Some tell me the really skilled - the IT experts, doctors and bankers - are starting to return. But others will leave.

It's not just the brain drain. There's a brawn drain as well. I'm told British construction firms are having to import labourers from elsewhere, and there's a well-founded story of Chinese labourers in the north of the country.

I'd need to read some detailed reports on southern Italy and Ireland to know what long-term damage or good massive emigration does to a country, but the short-term problems are obvious.


Mass migration is of course nothing new. In a way, the free movement of people created the history of Europe, largely by the sword. But cheap air travel and the EU's rules have made it much easier, psychologically and practically, for people to move from one country to another.

Perhaps the reason that for generations people like Constantin and Constantina - gypsies, as they were called then - evoked such passions, such envy and such hatred, is because their life was based on ignoring boundaries at a time when most people strayed no further than the fields they knew.

Now so many of us travel freely across boundaries, who should be stopped from using this privilege?

Please use the post form below to comment on any of the issues raised in the diary.

I phoned my friends in Bucharest to congratulate them on Romania's entry into the EU. I expected jubilation, street dancing and celebration. Nothing of the sort! They expect life to become dearer and even more difficult, pointing at the ongoing unrest in neighbouring Hungary, where people feel deceived by a government that chose to join the EU. Don't forget, not everyone wants to leave and some don't have a choice.
Hanna W., Brighton, England

Imagine if you had interviewed an unemployed Btit, visited the most deprived area in London and then went on to interview some celebrity building a miniature Taj-Mahal in his yard. You would have exactly the same impression of the UK as you now do Romania. This was an article based on conveniently-filtered information. But it does have some value. It points out that most Romanians would follow the current pattern of migrating to Southern-European countries, not automatically fleeing to the UK. It's far easier for people to establish themselved in places where they have connections already.
Olja, Cambridge, UK

I sympathize with the Romanians and certainly wish them to have a better life for themselves after joining the EU, in terms of acquiring personal wealth. But this shouldn't be allowed to happen to the detriment of local workforces, being pushed out of jobs, replaced by people just as eager to work - thereby increasing national unemployment rates. The contrast between 'old' Eastern Block and 'new' Western countries will be blatantly clear to everyone arriving at our ports and airports. Can you blame anyone not wanting to go back home where there is no economy to support educated and eager workforces, initially at least? Added to this, there is no doubt that a substantial percentage of migrants will enter the black market (as is already the case). The UK (and other EU members) should have already learnt this lesson by example. If anyone needs an example of what lies ahead, not just for the Uk but also other EU countries, just take a look at Poland and the huge problems this country is currently facing at retaining an educated and eager work force for their own (still) growing national economy.
Phil, London, UK

When I lived in the UK I saw a mass influx of people on several occasions, West Indians, Asians and now east Europeans. Most of these people took the opportunity to benefit financially and continue to pay taxes to the exchequer. They also introduced commercial flexibility and diversity as well as an opportunity for the tabloids to run hate-mongering stories. It makes sense except for one problem, people who have spent their lives being brutalised will naturally develop a brutal side to their own nature - don't expect all poor Romanians to be gentle rule-abiding kittens, their life experience to date has compelled many of them to take every meagre opportunity they can get - legal or otherwise.
Paul Fischer, Varazdin, Croatia.

As an ex-pat in Bucharest I enjoy a good standard of living, despite it being a very expensive city for accommodation. 1,500 Euros per month for a two bedroom apartment is not even in the 'pricey' bracket. It is a misnomer that all Romanians are poor. There are many Romanians with stupid amounts of money and very few in between these two extremes. Romania is not a third world country but is often treated as such - with people in UK etc raising money for orphans and bringing lorry loads of aid. The corruption, which is endemic, ensures that public money is badly spent, wasted or creamed off. If Romanians helped Romanians things would improve. However, I have seen very little will in this direction.
Ela Robinson, Bucharest Romania

I have many friends in Romania and have travelled there six times since 2001, in this time i have learnt alot from a variety of people. My main reason for visiting Romania is because im involved with a Residential Centre, (orphanages don't exist anymore, they are 'Residential Centres')but thats a whole other debate. Several of my friends want to travel west into Italy, Spain and of course Britain. They are all hard working, skilled, some even university educated people, and ultimately want the best for their families in the future, something that they feel staying in Romania cannot offer them- a stable future. However the saying of 'the grass is greener on the other side' comes to mind. If they do migrate to a western country and get a job with western pay, they will still have their family to support and western costs, taxes etc to pay. Will moving west live up to their expectations?
Al, Somerset

I'm sorry to say that Romanians here in Spain do not have a good image at all.
Andrew, Valencia, Spain

I would like to see all Romanians who wish to come and work in Britain welcomed. I am a Romanian citizen living the UK since June 1989. When I arrived at Heathrow in 89 (with my British husband) immigration would not allow me to enter the country on the basis that I may be suffering form tuberculosis! I was made to wait for 2 hrs in an isolation area, then taken in a special van to another terminal, where I was scanned for TB. This was 17 years ago, and I was arriving at Heathrow as a legal immigrant (the wife of a British citizen). I hope that 17 years on, British authorities would be able to give a better welcome to honest Romanians wishing to work in the UK. I work in IT, for a world-wide corporation, I do significant amounts of volunteer work in my community, I have recently earned an extra qualification in Psychotherapy, and I consider that in the past 17 years I made a significant contribution to the UK. Thank you Mark for trying to raise awareness of Romania and their current living standards, and thank you to all who made valuable comments.
Gabi, Oxford, UK

I have spent 3 of the last 4 summer's in Romania, working with a local community to establish an international summer camp. I have to say all the people I have worked with have been hard working and enthusiastic people who are readily involved in European culture. I thought, as others have commented that the article was an unfair reflection on the Romanian life, as he mostly spoke to Romas (who are gypsies) and gave a very limited profile of what is in fact a beautiful and exceptionally underated country. I have visited a lot of Romania and find a lot of the information given in that report to be a very selective and negative view of the Romanian culture.
Mike Foster, Manchester

A juggernaut that cannot be stopped and a subject avoided by those who practice political correctness.Another miscalculated influx of economic migrants in some parts of this country would sadly be the straw that breaks the camels back.This is all about big business exploiting cheap labour,thereby keeping their costs down and making even bigger profits than before.Sadly Romanians like the Poles before them are likely to head straight for the towns and Cities where fellow countrymen already reside.Places of relative poverty where social services are at breaking point,and minimum wages are all that is on offer.There will be "quotas" this time because the government cannot afford a repeat of the bad publicity which occured after the Polish experience.
Shaun Kerr, Whitechaple, United Kingdom

Well, I lived (legally) in France for five years and since june 2005 I returned in Romania. I have a good job in Bucharest now - I am a reporter for a press agency - and I can tell you that I like more living in Romania than in France. I traveled alot during the last years and Britain, sorry to tell you, folks, looks worst than France and I`ll NEVER live in your country! The only country that I really like in western Europe is Spain.
Sorin Melen, Bucharest, Romania

I returned to the UK after 5years abroad and the immigration PROBLEM was obvious and appalling - friends out of work to cheap labour and "professionals" from the ex soviet bloc moonlighting with fake degrees. The people who decide these immigration laws have NO IDEA what it can do to a community and there is no end in sight as we can all see. When Turkey joins in the next few years, I am getting the hell out of this Labour screw up.
Thomas Bryant, Twickenham, UK

While the Roma minority, of course, does not represent the whole of Romania, the country itself really has a problem with poverty - and above all with huge and ever-present corruption. And yes, it is certainly correct that precisely these Roma people will leave Romania and seek better life outside their homeland - they have already done so in in the early 1990s! You can only talk to people from there (and not just the Romas). Note that the GDP per capita in Romania is USD 8200 (same as Turkey). Slovenia's is USD 22000, Czech Republic's USD 19500 (Portugal's USD 19300). So yes there IS a difference between the countries that joined in 2004 and Romania and Bulgaria (GDP per capita USD 9600). It is tragic, but the EU is not a charity - one could help Romania by special funds etc. (already happening), but I would not say that country like that is ready to join the EU at the moment. At least another five-ten years!
Peter, UK

Let me ask you how many english are working in Romania, or Bulgaria, or Greece, or another country, and if they are not payd more thet they will earn in UK?!?! If they are so good, why they do not stay home? so, the export of workers is good only for you, not for as? This is discrimination!
Andreea Andronescu, Bucuresti, Romania

What people who are responding to this "forum" should realise is this: Mass migration is already upon us, whether you label it illegal or legal. There is no point demonising any system or society, whether labelled "European Union" or "Roma Gypsies". The small world that we live in will be a better place if we unleash true competition. Hiding behind protectionist measures is a reflection of one's own failure - a failure where one simply cannot compete in the global marketplace. And this is a selfish attitude, where one is protecting one's own interests, rather that that of global society. Let brain and brawn migrate far and wide so that this will ultimately bring peace and prosperity globally through increased diffision and homogeneity across nations.
Harry Thangaraj, London, UK

Having lived here since 1998, I can see things from both the British and the Romanian side. The vast majority of Romanians, particularly the young, have the same aspirations as any British person. A better more comfortable life. The education and skill levels seem ona par with the UK,the willingness to work for a good wage a bit better than the UK. The Roma people are a minority. There is little interest among most to intigrate with the rest of the Romanian community. The police do not take away their horses and carts for no reason. They do it when the Roma persitently operate them in areas of towns and cities where horse and carts are banned, or when illegal camp sites are set up. Not unlike some travellers in the UK. Romanian encourages all Roma to send their children to school (which is required under the law) many refuse to do so. It is wrong, in this time of EU integration to single out the real problem of the Roma minority as being indicative of what Romania has to offer as a whole. And remember one thing, the rest of Europe has increased its market by over 22 million in Romania alone. For Romanias sake, I welcome the entry into the EU. I also welcome the safeguards! Mike
Mike, Piatra Neamt, Romania

Having met a large number of exceptionally pleasant and hard-working Romanians working on a cruise ship that I was holidaying on, I am all for their entry into the EU, with no restrictions on working. There was a sense of complete frustration that back home they can have highly-skilled jobs, yet on a cruise ship, they can earn 6 times as much doing bar-work or waiting tables, and this was done with a level of skill and competency far exceeding even the top restaurants in London! A bigger issue in the UK is the fact that all our hospitals and schools were full to saturation point before Europe opened up. Rather than blaming everything on the Eastern Europeans, we should look at ourselves, and seek to resolve our own problems.
Lara, London

I don't understand this you (bussinesses) and us (poor people who've been put out of josb) attitude. You all benefit from the Polish people who pick strawberies, fix roads and build houses for minimum wage. The bussinesses are not making "obscene" profits, just profits. They can't make "obscene" profits because that would imply that they're selling things for more than they're worth. Which would in turn imply that people who are buying them are stupid for paying more for things than they're worth. If someone else could sell things more cheaply they would do so, thus preventing others from making "obscene" profits. Anyway, it's better to keep people on their toes rather then let them rest on their laurels only to realize that all jobs worth having are in China all of a sudden.
David, Edinburgh, United Kingdom

I don't object to immigration if those who come here want to fit in and work hard - which most Poles do. I'm sure Romainians will be just as hard working and an asset to whatever country they stay in. I suppose the problem is sheer numbers. We're a fairly small and quite populated island. Since 2004 1.4 million have come from Europe - with Romania and Bulgaria that'll continue and increase. Presumably we'll stop when there's standing room only!

It was news to me that Romanians have a good reputation in Spain!
Ian , Madrid, Spain

I rather have the Romanians coming to the UK than that our factories are being shut and moved to eastern Europe. Probably they will reduce the labour shortage here and hopefully bring and end to the poor workmanship of English cowboys. If our fellow Europeans are going to do a better job and willing to accept less pay, then they are welcome and I am happy to buy a Romanian dictionary so I can understand them better, if their English isn't that good yet.
John, London

The PC lefties are very vocal when it comes to the rights of the Roma to come here. I am amazed at their blindness to the consequences of their naive attitdue. I actually don't think there should be a problem with those who want to work legally....if that is all they were going to do. If they were going to earn money and contribute to society like the rest of us. The trouble is, it isn't and an unknown number won't. The reason they want to come to the UK and other old EU states, is that the total welfare package is the big draw. Do they refuse the houses or schooling funded by my council tax? Or the medical services funded by my National Insurance contributions. Do they add to the local economy by spending their hard earned money here? The answer will be an over-whelming no to all those questions. The services in the welfare package are well established and provided by the hardwork of many generations of British tax payers, who often, now, can't access these services themselves because they are already overwhelmed. Not all Romanians coming to the UK will be parasites. Some will settle for the long term and contribute back into our society. But many tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, will come and just take what they can. Just to reply to the Australian wit who commented earlier about British immigration to his country, be clear about the differences in immigration policy, mate. Australia requires it's immigrants to prove they can support themselves before they are allowed in.
Steve H, Littlehampton

I work with many immigrants in research here in Birmingham and have worked with many in the past in veg packing factories, and the huge majority are hard working, honest people who will work a lot harder than british people will for the same money. I welcome the skills from abroad, we are short on skilled people here, so why cant they come over from Poland or Romania, what makes our machinery etc so different to work with? The question we should ask is, why are they coming here, the reason being is that they come to work and to better themselves. They wouldn't come if some of the lazy brits got up of their backside, out of the comfort zone and did some of the jobs that these migrants are so happy to do. A reform of our benefits system is needed, not stricter controls on immigration!
Terence, Birmingham, Great Britian

We have similar discussions on Finnish online forums and like in BBC/Mardel presentation the main emphasis is the possible effects of the Roam people or the bad thought aspects of the society. No emphasis is paid on the majority of the people and the good things that may represent 98% of the whole story. Only the 2% gets attention because that is probably "news". The many Romanian writers have noticed this too but obviously Mardell not.
Mikko Toivonen, Helsinki, Finland

Living in Dublin from the past 7 years, I have watch an influx of African, Chinese, and eastern Europeans arrive in the country . This has been a great thing for Ireland, Reviving many of the run down urban areas and creating a mufti cultural society in the cities. Apart from that, the lower cost labour has helped small business get off the ground, fill the 100,000 jobs and force Irish people to rethink the working lives and skills. The are now approx 150,000 polish worker in Ireland, this s good for Ireland because the unskilled and skilled jobs are being filled, tax receipts are increased and the housing market continues to boom. What is more important and the goal of a unified European community is that is very good for Poland. Unemployment rate have dropped significantly, Their is a booming property market in Poland. something like 70% of all international investment is Poland is now coming for Britain and Ireland. Trough migration and work permits and money being reinvested in the country Ireland was given the chance to go from a county that only had to offer men with the attitudes like "I want to work hard, with a shovel. I am an honest worker" to a world leader in financial service, Software development and pharmacy R&D and one of the strongest and highest contributing economises in the EU . Maybe Britain and Ireland should extend the same opportunities to Romania, Poland, Bulgaria etc. Each stronger individual nation will create a stronger EU which befits all country in the EU. This must be a positive thing pro EU or not.
Brian Daly, Dublin, Ireland

It is becoming more and more frustrating the way Western journalists choose to describe our country. Why would you start your article with the example of a gypsy family? It is not fair, and we are already exasperated by this stereotype. I have been living in London for 5 years, I have finished a masters degree here (paid it all by myself); I started to work in PR a couple of months ago. I used to be a journalist in Romania. And I can tell you I do not have an easy life. My wages are worse than what my university friends earn in Romania, compared to the prices, rent, etc. I am quite disappointed about what life offers me here. Yes, I work in the City, but I can't afford a holiday like my Romanian friends who go each here be it in Spain, Greece or Italy, just for a couple of weeks. And the UK Government should not worry about the Romanian immigrants looking for work, but about those who want to come here in other purposes, who will not pay taxes and will not struggle to live in this very expensive city. Besides, Romanians, Polish, Bulgarians, etc. don't come here to steal poor British people their jobs, they only do the jobs that the British would never do. I somehow do not see an Enlgish girl working in a restaurant in Kings Cross 7 days a week, 10 hours a day, sometimes more, for 175. I did that job because I had no choice. All the news and articles in the British press about the poor, primitive Eastern Europeans desperate for the generosity of Uk people just make me sad, feeling less, part of a "special" class, less human, more animal.The "civilised" Western citizens are no better than the Eastern European people. Every country has its good and bad. I do not see why it is so hard to understand. I finished my master here, in London, and I had to work, as a receptionist, for 170 a week for a security company where except from the boss and two, three other people nobody had ever heard the word college. And I was doing the mail and and answering phonecalls...hardly rewarding or challenging...Since 2001 I had all sorts of jobs, cleaning, being a nanny, working in a factory...anything to pay my rent...and still feeling like a second class citizen. But I really wanted to finish my studies so I had to live with it. My point is we were never here to steal your jobs, I met so few British people working in the same places as me...what is more...I always worked FOR them...
maria, London, UK

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